STANFORD, Calif. -- As Darrell Catchings reached the ball toward the goal line, it appeared Oregon State was on its way to a memorable comeback. Then Taylor Skaufel knocked it loose for a touchback and Stanford survived a thrilling season-opening victory.
Catchings' fumble in the final seconds was one of two bizarre plays in the south end zone that made sure Stanford would not waste Toby Gerhart's stellar return from a knee injury and hold on for a 36-28 Pac-10 victory Thursday night.
"You don't necessarily like winning that way," safety Bo McNally said. "But a win's a win. We would have liked to do a lot of things better defensively than we did. We are in no way satisfied. We have to do a lot of things better."
Stanford did two things much better than Oregon State -- run the ball and protect it. Gerhart had a career-high 147 yards and two touchdowns, while the Beavers had two key interceptions and two fumbles in the second half.
The first fumble gave the Cardinal the lead for good on a safety late in the third quarter. The second came with just 47 seconds remaining, when the Beavers looked on the verge of erasing a 16-point deficit before Skaufel poked the ball out of Catchings' hands and out of the end zone for a touchback.
"I was trying to make a play for the team but unfortunately it didn't work out that way," Catchings said. "It didn't happen. I have to learn from this and try to make better decisions."
With Gerhart playing only one game last year, the Cardinal struggled to run the ball. That was especially true in a 23-6 loss at Oregon State when they were held to minus 8 yards on the ground.
But a healthy backfield made all the difference. Gerhart showed the same form he had in his one game last year when he ran for 140 yards against San Jose State. With the power to run through tackles and the speed to get to the outside, Gerhart rushed for two touchdowns in the first half and converted two third-and-longs to sustain drives in the second half.
"It feels like I didn't play football in two years," he said. "It feels good to be out there. I picked up where I left off. Now just keep it going."
That helped the Cardinal win this rare conference game on college football's opening weekend. The only other one on the schedule among teams in the BCS conferences is also in the Pac-10, when Washington visits Oregon on Saturday.
Quarterback Lyle Moevao and the Beavers effectively attacked Stanford's defense on the perimeter for much of the game with short passes and end arounds. But it was on one of those plays that the momentum changed late in the third quarter.
On a second-and-16 from the Oregon State 9, Moevao attempted to throw a swing pass to Ryan McCants. Moevao was on the 2 when he threw the ball and it landed on the 1 before rolling out the side of the end zone for a safety that gave Stanford a 22-20 lead.
"That turned the game totally around," Oregon State coach Mike Riley said. "It will be a hard game to watch on film because of all the mistakes. We'll learn from this."
Pritchard, who won a three-man race for the starting quarterback job, was 10-of-17 for 91 yards in a turnover-free performance.
But the offense revolved around Gerhart, who scored on a 1-yard run and a 46-yarder in the second quarter.
"When he sees a hole, he's gone," coach Jim Harbaugh said. "He's up in it and he's running. It doesn't take him a long time to get to full speed. He has those instincts you come out of the crib with. I've seen him in two games and he's been darn good."
Moevao was 34-of-54 for 404 yards and three touchdowns, but was done in by turnovers in the second half. After the safety, he threw an interception on a tipped pass that thwarted a drive deep in Stanford territory. On the next drive, Moevao was intercepted again and McNally took it back 34 yards for a score that made it 36-20.
Sammie Stroughter, back after missing most of last season with a kidney injury, had 12 catches for 157 yards and two touchdowns, including a 55-yard score in the first half for Oregon State. Shane Morales added 13 catches for 151 yards and a TD.
The Beavers had won eight straight games in the Bay Area, including a victory last season over Maryland in the Emerald Bowl. They must recover from this loss quickly with a game at Penn State next weekend. Oregon State is the only team from a BCS conference to open the season with consecutive road games.